Jim Helsinger wanted to celebrate the 25th season of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater with something monumental, something that would quiet critics of Orlando's arts scene.
How about a 6-and-a-half-hour play, in two parts, that's so daunting to produce it has been seen in the United States only six times before? That mammoth undertaking, the largest in the theater's history, is an adaptation of Charles Dickens' "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," and the Shakes opens the first half Friday night.
"I've heard since the day I got here that Orlando's a town without culture. It's time to say that's not true," said Helsinger, the theater's artistic director since 1995. "We're ready to face our biggest challenge."
The numbers tell the story of what it takes to put on such an epic: 27 actors will wear more than 200 costume pieces and 95 wigs. They will have rehearsed for 336 hours and gone through nearly 20 pounds of coffee.
The University of Central Florida contributed its resources, both in personnel and space. "We needed two costume shops, we needed two scene shops," Helsinger said. "We just couldn't have done it without them."
In 1980 David Edgar adapted Dickens' novel, a pointedly comic look at social class in 19th-century England. It was first performed — in an even longer version — by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.
For the Orlando Shakespeare troupe, the fiscal concerns loomed large.
"I said 'Let's do it,' but I saw it as a big risk," Helsinger said. "I'm still scared."
Expenses came to about $300,000, compared with the $200,000 the Shakes usually spends each spring to present two shows in repertory. But a special "Nickleby"-themed fundraiser last year pulled in the $100,000 difference, giving the theater the courage to move forward.
The budget doesn't include the contributions by UCF faculty and students. Putting a dollar figure on their work, which includes everything from acting to set building to composing music to directing, would make the production's true cost closer to $500,000, Helsinger said.
At UCF, the benefits to students were too good to pass up, said Christopher Niess, chairman of the theater department and co-director of "Nickleby."
"We're trying to give students a competitive edge in the professional world," Niess said. "This is a great educational opportunity. Working on the show is now part of the students' course work."
The thrill of working on a rarely produced show was hard for staff members to resist.
"When the call went out at UCF, I immediately said I'd love to be involved," said Phillip Ingle, an audio engineer and sound designer in the theater department. He composed music for the songs scattered throughout the play.
"There is original music available to buy for the show, but it's pricey," Ingle said. "I've been a musician my entire life. I was able to compose, orchestrate and record the music myself."
To make the collaboration possible, UCF reduced the number of on-campus plays, adding "Nickleby" to its season-ticket theater packages.
The Shakespeare theater was founded in partnership with UCF and working on a production of this scale has strengthened the relationship, the directors said.
"We've worked more closely as a company and academic institution than we ever have," Niess said.
The Shakes spent extra money on marketing "Nickleby," renting billboards around town and sponsoring the local broadcast of the PBS television show "Downton Abbey," set in England. The theater also is offering all-day packages with a themed dinner between the show's halves to raise interest — the first, on Feb. 1, has sold out.
"Ticket sales are slightly ahead of target," Helsinger said. "It's outselling last year's [spring] shows, which is a good sign."
Even if revenue falls short of the theater's ultimate hopes, Helsinger said, the Shakes won't suffer. "We have a very strong board, no debt at all and good cash reserves," he said. "We're at the place to take a risk."
He's more concerned about what message will be sent by Orlando theatergoers as he seeks to prove the cultural naysayers wrong.
"If we get the support in attendance, it will be proof that we can go out and take the big risk," he said. "But if we don't get the support, it will be hard for groups to do something like this again."
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'The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby'
•What: A two-part production of the David Edgar play, adapted from the Charles Dickens novel, by Orlando Shakespeare Theater
•When: Part 1 opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24; part 2 opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31. The two parts then play in repertory through March 9.
• Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
• Tickets: $17-$40 for each part. A "20 Under 30" Night is scheduled for Feb. 14; all tickets for patrons younger than 30 will be $20.
• What else: On select dates, beginning Feb. 1, it will be possible to see both plays in the same day with a dinner break. Dinner packages, featuring a Victorian-themed meal at Orlando's White Wolf Café, are available. The theater also will arrange a box lunch from Panera Bread to be delivered to the theater for patrons. To make a day-and-night getaway of the experience, hotel packages are available, too. Details at OrlandoShakes.com.
• Call: 407-447-1700
• Online: OrlandoShakes.org